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What Happened to the Firkin Pubs

(Please Note: This article was originally written in 2000 when I created my first pub review and travel guide. I’ve added some annotations and additions, and these are indicated.)

History

Firkin Dogbolter Pump ClipThe Firkin pub chain was started in London in 1979 by David Bruce[1]. He stepped in and bought a few run-down pubs off the major brewers where they were unable to make them pay. As well as redocorating the pubs in a basic but friendly style, he introduced the long forgotten concept of pubs brewing their own beer.

The breweries were tiny and were located behind or underneath the pubs – often with viewing windows or hatches so that the ‘machinery’ became part of the environment.

I first became aware of the chain in 1980 when friends took me to one of the original pubs, the Goose and Firkin in Borough, London SE1. The pub was packed and the atmosphere very lively, with a pianist leading everyone through an old style pub sing-song. I also used to frequent the original Frog and Firkin – a tiny pub just by the Hammersmith & City line near Westbourne Park station. Another well known pub was the Phoenix and Firkin which occupied the old ticket office at Denmark Hill station in South London. The name refers to the fact that the ticket office was previously destroyed by fire, but was renovated to create the pub.

Expansion

With the success of the concept, the chain grew rapidly until 1988 when David Bruce sold the chain to European Leisure. The pubs changed hands a couple more times in a short period until in 1991 the chain was taken over by Allied Lyons (later Allied Domecq).

Flyman & Firkin, Shaftesbury AvenueAfter this the chain expanded again, not just in London but all over the country – typically in university towns. There were a few wobbly periods but generally the pubs were excellent, had a great atmosphere and played good music too.

The 1995 CAMRA Good Beer Guide records that the chain had 44 pubs of which 19 actually brewed. (The non-brewery pubs were supplied by one of the other Firkin pubs). Each pub tended to have it’s own named bitter, along with the Dogbolter and other seasonal beers.The Dogbolter[2] was always my favourite drink as it tasted like nothing else – a rich, dark, strong brew, although it didn’t do to drink it all night long.

When going for a night out in London, trips to Firkin pubs were always on the schedule. My favourites were The Flyman and Firkin, Fanfare and Firkin in the West End of London, along with The Fringe and Firkin in Shepherds Bush. I can’t remember the name but the Firkin pub in Winchester was really good too.

The Bass Takeover

Apparently in the spring of 1999, Whitbread and Punch Taverns both made hostile bids to take over the entire Allied Domecq pub roster. After a bidding war, Whitbread pulled out of the running leaving Punch Taverns to take over with financing from Bass. It then appears that Punch Taverns sold the Firkin chain on to Bass.

Early in October 1999, signs were appearing in Firkin pubs in London announcing that Firkin beers were to be discontinued, to be replaced with two ‘new’ and ‘exciting’ brews – namely Tetleys and Burtons.

So on October 8th 1999 all brewing of Firkin beers stopped completely and all the brewing staff were made redundant. Some of the Central London Firkin pubs had stock left for a few days, but because of the high turnover, it didn’t last to the following weekend.

It is unclear why Punch Taverns/Bass bought the chain and then decided to cease production of the distinctive Firkin beers, but it was certainly not done in the interest of consumer choice[3]. Tetleys, and Burtons especially may have been quality beers, but they are limp and lifeless when compared to Firkin beer.

Following any of the links in this section will take you away from this site and I can’t be held responsible for their content.

2010 Notes

  1. David Bruce is now a director of the Capital Pub Company which operates about 25 pubs in London. These pubs are appranetly not themed in the same way the Firkin pubs were, and none of them brew their own beer.
  2. Dogbolter actually does live on! The Ramsgate Brewery, based in Broadstairs brews Gadds’ Faithful Dogbolter Porter which I believe uses the same recipe as the original Firkin versions. And I have read comments that it tastes very like the original. You can read more about it in a blog post elsewhere on this site from 2009 entitled Firkin Dogbolter.
  3. In 2000 I naively believed that pub chains would care what their customer thought since it was the customers that chose to go there and buy the beer. Looking back it was obvious that Punch wanted to minimise costs and maximise profits so weren’t really interested in the craft brewing and other unique aspects of the Firkin chain. I guess they were also interested in acquiring a chain of pubs that were often in prime locations within towns.

186 Responses to “What Happened to the Firkin Pubs”

  1. Paul says:

    Frankie Boy Flame is on YouTube. By the looks of it he mainly entertains people with acquired brain injuries…

  2. Chris Daniels says:

    I recently acquired a glass display box fron the Flock & Firkin in a charity shop! It contains many barrel tops with the names of nearly all of the Firkin pubs on. I was really excited about this because it had some of the places i used to frequent in my youth around Birmingham…

    Flapper & Firkin
    Feller & Firkin
    Falstaff & Firkin
    Factotum & Firkin

    Im sure there was another! They were the best for a warm atmosphere & live music, the shabby chic botanical coffee houses of today are nice but i doubt the joy & wildness of the Firkin pubs will ever be matched again! The Flapper on the canal has recently been converted into city apartments i believe, Kleenex moment ?!

  3. Juliet Brammer says:

    So pleased to have stumbled across this thread. Its brought back some very happy memories of Friday nights at the Goose & Firkin in the mid-eighties. (Not sure how I’ve got any memories at all after at least half a dozen pints of Dog bolter!). My friends and I were a loyal crew. We used to trek from Holloway Road to Elephant & Castle so we could sing along with Frankie on the piano. I’ve got a cassette with a live recording on somewhere – must dig it out! Ieft London in the mid 90s and wasn’t aware of the demise of the Firkin pubs. Such a shame.

  4. Phil Lorriman says:

    Used to go to the Flamingo at Beckett St Derby for a pint (or two) of Dogbolter on a Saturday lunchtime after picking up my other half from work. Even lunchtimes were great, brilliant atmosphere & just superb beer ! We moved away to Lincolnshire & I have only just found out about the sad demise of this, & the other pubs. Very happy memories. I too have a tee-shirt – ‘Flamin go & buy me a Firkin pint!’. Sad loss (again) to the grasping ‘big six’ as it used to be.

  5. Peter Fay says:

    I used to run the Fuzzock & Firkin in Kentish Town, I left the company soon after David sold the company to Midsummer Leisure, I still have the commemorative glass tankard given to the managers, fond memories.

  6. MikeB says:

    I lived in Weyhill while stationed with the USAF at RAF Greenham Common and the wife of a couple (she worked at MOD in London) I met at the Star Inn in Weyhill (now an Indian restaurant) took me to the Goose and Firkin. For years a most prized possession was my Goose t-shirt. I probably had more Brit friends than American and loved every minute I spent in England.

  7. brookski says:

    When I read these comments from people like me who loved nights out at – in my case mostly – the Goose it makes me mad that such a great place/chain has gone by the wayside at the hands of the Corporates. Then I remind myself that I was privileged to have been part of it whilst it was there and it lives on in my memories. Everything changes – including my memories – I wonder now it is was really as good as I remember… yeah, course it was!

  8. Master Brewer says:

    David Bruce’s original Firkins were unique. I worked in them just before they were taken over by Allied and the whole philosophy and culture was superb. The Craft Beer revolution years ahead of its time. Corporate management ruined them because the failed to understand this. Most of the Firkins named on here came after the Allied takeover and none of them lived up to the original.

  9. Ade Clarke says:

    I am the landlord of The Lamb in Holloway Road – which 30 or so years ago was The Flounder and Firkin. It’s lovely reading these stories of all the good times in Firkins during the 80s. Any more stories about my one? A while ago I was in contact with Mr Gadd who now runs the Ramsgate Brewery who make a version of Dogbolter – for old time’s sake I want to get that into the pub some time soon. On Thurdays Dave the Keys comes in to play the piano and we have coterie of regulars who sing along. #keepthefaith.

  10. Kieran Moore says:

    Ah, working in Central London in those days… Would sneak off to the Firkin in Tottenham Court Road for some of the legendary Dogbolter. Very sad that the chain succumbed to dark forces. Find memories of the atmosphere, decor and just ‘niceness’ of the Firkin pubs. So reliably good.

  11. Kjartan says:

    Stories about the Flounder? Well I used to bash the piano there on Thursdays for about the first four years of its existence in the 80’s. Have you still got the big fish tank round the back? When David Bruce first put it in, he knew nothing about fish and just picked a load of interesting pretty things. He never worked out why some types kept disappearing until we had an all-nighter and saw that the others were eating them. Glad to hear Thursdays still has a piano going!

  12. Mike M says:

    just had another look at my shirts in the loft…then looked on Ebay to see if there were any being sold.. to my amazement there was someone selling two.
    The Frog and The Goose in used condition. More amazing the said they were very rare and had a price tag of £151 ….EACH!
    Mine staying in loft…doubt they will get that price anyway

  13. Chris Boyce says:

    Can anyone put me in contact with, “Mr Gadd who now runs the Ramsgate Brewery who make a version of Dogbolter”? I would love to encourage my local, the Helter Skelter in Frodsham, Cheshire, to feature it as one of its guest beers.

  14. Graham Cock says:

    The Flounder was one of my favourite sites when I worked with the pubs. I remember some Interesting customers who frequented the pub on a regular basis. Some great characters in the Firkin pubs, I just wished we had those days again. Eddie’s Dog was certainly a great brew and I’m pleased to say his current brew at Ramsgate is an equal.

  15. Mark says:

    As someone who is visiting after emigrating to NZ many moons ago I sadly found about the demise through a simple search hoping to revisit memory lane. My wife(of the time) and I worked as bar staff for the Bruces chain back in mid 80’s. I have very fond memories of working at the Frog and Firkin in Tavistock Crescent. Every Sunday afternoon, back in the days of “Sunday trading hours” we would fill up a couple of polypins and together with the “locals” head of to Regents or Hyde Park. Can’t recall which now. The afternoon would be spent drinking beer and playing croquet. Then a rush to get back for 7pm opening! Oh happy days.

  16. Lesley LW says:

    Does anyone remember dancing on the tables to Frankie Boy at the piano in the Goose & Firkin on Friday nights? It was so packed people buy the bat were passed your money and then passed the beer back to you over everyone’s heads…happy happy times!

  17. Ken Wilson says:

    Great memories of a long time ago – it seems like a different lifetime now. I’m a Canuck that spent 7 months working in London and my friends and I loved going to the Frog & Firkin for a few pints of Dogbolter. What a shame that this craft brewery was so ahead of its time.

  18. Neil Aplin says:

    Eddie Gadd: eddie@ramsgatebrewery.co.uk | 01843 868453 – friend of a friend! Neil 07900 531284

  19. Garry Anderson says:

    Yes Lesley, I do remember packed Fridays at the Goose, dancing on the tables and general ribaldry. We once met a bunch of other punters at the Goose and for some reason kept singing Alouettes je te plumerai over the pianists music – eventually we were thrown out . . . think the Dogbolter may have got to us.
    Was disappointed to find on my recent return to the UK that Bruce and his Breweries were only distant memories.
    Sadly missed, but fondly remembered.

  20. Michael Albert Dugdale says:

    I briefly worked as a brewer at the Phoenix and Firkin and the Fox and Firkin, both in south London. Very hard work, it was too! The Allied management had the idea that the chain should appeal to student, and it was placed in their ‘youngs’ division. I believed this to be completely the wrong approach, as students have little money, less knowledge about real ale, and preferred to get their hangovers from the cheap stuff in their students union bar.
    Interestingly, the Goose had a clock on the ceiling, so you could tell the time lying horizontal on the floor after too many beers! Also, when brewing started there, they uses malt extract, and the fermentation was done in plastic FV’s!
    I believe that the writing was on the wall when Allied tried to standardise all the recipes countrywide, and I had left before the demise of brewing on site.

  21. Wow just found this as l am writing a book!
    I played piano in most of the pubs the goose on a Thursday was bonkers.
    for 4 years American students came from recommended past students and l was invited to Minnesota to do a gig for the students who hadn’t made it to England .
    It was surreal they shipped in Guinness to substitute dogbolter and they gave me the door for expenses.
    Another notable night was in the Frog. I took my parents one night (retired) when In came the Reading chapter of hells angels, l kept an eye on my parents in case they might have felt nervous but my dad was on a table conducting the singing, and at the end of the night when l couldn’t find him, he was outside astride a bike trying to kick start it! One of the guys just winked at me and showed me the keys ” don’t worry he said he’s going nowhere!” Apparently he’d been regiling them with his war stories where he was a motor cycle dapatch rider!
    Brilliant memories from a brilliant time…..

  22. Arnie Marchant says:

    I was an Aussie in London in the mid nineties & frequented The Frog…Sure is a shame that this pub chain no longer exists

  23. Chris Daniels says:

    Hi everyone,

    I have a display cabinet from the Flock & Firkin with all of the Firkin pub names up to that point written on Firkin tops inside. I am happy to display it in my home but it would be better in a specialised museum of British pub memorabilia or similar. I wondered if anyone on this blog knew of such a place?

    Kind Regards, Chris

  24. CazMac says:

    I remember the puns – ‘Phoenix my firkin pint I’ll thump him’, and ‘Frogod’s sake buy me a firkin pint’. They were good pubs – I miss them.

  25. Peter Martin says:

    I ( Pete Martin) used to sing in a duo with my mate Kev Jones as Helter Skelter from 1995 to 2000 before the live music was cancelled. We started in The Fox Lewisham and The Falcon in Victoria Park and played nearly all the Firkin pubs in and around London. Eventually we got two residencies. Every Friday would be the Flintlock in Tottenham Ct Rd and Saturday’s would be the Friesian and Firkin. We ventured over to Paris when they opened a few there and also Den Haag and Utrecht. They were fabulous times. Great audiences and even better managers. We are still in contact with many who became good friends 20 years on.

  26. Peter Martin says:

    ps. the Friesian was in Clapham !

  27. Dave says:

    Does anyone remember Jamie who used to play the piano on Wednesdays in the goose and Fridays in the ferret? He was also up at the Leighton buzzard railway occasionally..

  28. Jonathon Solomons says:

    I used to rink at the Frog and Firkin in the 80s, brilliant. Glass floor so you could se the brewing downstairs, massive baps with pate and coleslaw, fabulous beers, raucous Friday nights with pianist belting out ‘She was just 17…” just a brilliant brilliant atmosphere. Got friendly with Bill and Jan who ran the place, had Sunday lunch upstairs once or twice, a really brilliant pub.

    Each pub had a different catchphrase:

    Frogods sake buy me a firkin pint
    Phoenix my pint I’ll firkin thump him
    etc etc

    They did a thing where if you visited all pubs in a month (May 1988) you got an engraved glass tankard, still have it, it was called the Firkin Founders Farewell Ale Trail….here were the pubs:

    Goose & Firkin
    Fox & Firkin
    Frog & Firkin
    Pheasant & Firkin
    Phoenix & Firkin
    Ferret & Firkin in the ballon up the creek
    Flounder & Firkin
    Falcon & Firkin
    Phantom & Firkin
    Fuzzock & Firkin
    Flamingo & Firkin

  29. Graham Waite says:

    The demise of the chain was inevitable when the corporates got their hands on them . I managed the Goose and Firkin after the refurbishment which was Taylor Walkers amazing concept.

    Frankie Flame and his BNP entourage were moved on and no more would we hear the ” We are White .. We are White we are English Dynamite” with fans mainly with very short hair adorned with George Flags having a whale of time .

    The idea was a wine bar decor to and I quote ” the office crowd” Needless to say with the plethora of offices (not) that was not an overwhelmingly good idea.

    The impoverished students started wonder what on earth was happening as none to subtly the prices inflated and the beer for £1 started to become less and less the norm.

    In fact they tried to bleed every penny out of it having spent a crazy amount of money on such important stuff as flower planters at £500 a pop which made amazing beer holders.

    Yet still had a single ladies toilet so you had to plan your visit well in advance girls (sadly not all made it and puddles weren’t always rain if you get my jist).

    They decided that everything good about the G&F had to be changed and even tried to curtail live music which packed the place pretty much every night.

    God forbid but we even had the late (early morning ravers) from the newly opened Ministry of Sound just to rip them off as well.

    They treated management and staff as pawns in their game trying to squeeze every drop of revenue they could regardless of the effects it had on customers.

    The beer ceased to be the attraction as cost cutting and crazy stocking policies were implemented. Any one who sampled the Russian free beer will know exactly what I mean (it was awful)

    David Bruce’s original concept was well and truly murdered.

    Most Firkin pubs didn’t have a brewery as it was deemed cheaper to ship it in from a couple of the larger outlets again not how it was ever intended to be.

    I am sure many students have fond memories something todays students will have missed out on thanks to corporate greed.

    Now where did I put my Firkin T Shirt collection?
    One final thought part of the initiation of the new managers was known as the Firkin Crawl after 13 pints (that was the number of London Pubs at the time) crawl was very appropriate after that.

  30. Hi l used to belt out “She was just 17” among others at the frog and most firkins notably the goose and the ferret (in Chelsea) wow great times queues outside (haven’t seen a pub with one of those for a while!) pints of dog lined up on the piano And even went over to Minnesota to play for the students who didn’t make it to the goose (4 consecutive years they came) amazing days. See my pic on FB. (taken at the hogshead Brighton)
    Just finished my first novel “The Duelling Pianist” (some references to firkins ) but mainly drawing on my time with Rank at Duelling Piano bars. (You couldn’t make it up) It’s being soft edited as l write so watch this space!!
    Thanks to everyone who put money into my beer bucket much appreciated

    Chris Kirtley or “boots”

  31. James Bailey says:

    It’s a pity that this arrangement doesn’t allow for photos. I have shirts from The Frog (Frog Od’s Sake Buy Me a Firkin Pint) and The Ferret (Every Firkin Pint Has a Hoppy Ending). Would be great if we could post pictures of such things, but I guess that would involve moving to a different platform (and the damn train has just left the station 🙂 )

  32. Justin Petty says:

    I didn’t know about the glass tankard in May 1988 for visiting all the pubs in a month! Coincidentally, I visited them all in one evening in June 88. I had just graduated from university in London at the time, and a bunch of us hired one of the college minibuses with a nominated driver and set off late afternoon to have a drink in each Firkin pub before closing time. From my hazy memory I think I did a half of Dogbolter in each. I still have my souvenir Phoenix t-shirt, along with a beer mat from each pub.

    Other catchphrases:
    “I’m a firkin pheasant plucker”
    “I spectre firkin ghoul pint when I ghost to the Phantom and Firkin”
    “Donkey me waiting for a Firkin pint eeyore I might get Fuzzock Ale”
    “I’ve flouder great plaice for a Firkin pint”

  33. Jonty says:

    Chris Kirtley, nights at the Frog were just brilliant!

  34. Graham Waite says:

    The list of the Firkin London Pubs which sadly are no more but apparently there are still some Firkin pubs in the US.

    Fairway & Firkin Blackheath 16 Blackheath Village, SE3
    Faith & Firkin Wandsworth Common 1 Bellevue Road, SW17
    Falcon & Firkin South Hackney 360 Victoria Park Road, E9
    Fanfare & Firkin Soho 38 Great Marlborough Street, W1
    Fantail & Firkin Muswell Hill 87 Muswell Hill Broadway, N10
    Faraday & Firkin Clapham Junction 66A-66C Battersea Rise, SW11
    Farrier & Firkin Marylebone 74-76 York Street, W1
    Fatling & Firkin Hornchurch 109 High Street, RM11
    Faun & Firkin Soho 18 Bear Street, WC2
    Felix & Firkin Barnet 31 High Street, EN5
    Ferret & Firkin Chelsea 1 14 Lots Road, SW10
    Fettler & Firkin Paddington 15 Chilworth Street, W2
    Fewterer & Firkin Sydenham 315 Kirkdale, SE26
    Fiddler & Firkin Croydon 14 South End, CR0
    Fielder & Firkin Sutton 346 Sutton High Street, SM1
    Financier & Firkin Kingston 43 Market Place, KT1
    Finnock & Firkin Islington 100 Upper Street, N1
    Fitz & Firkin Fitzrovia 240 Great Portland Street, W1
    Flamingo & Firkin Kingston 88 London Road, KT1 CN
    Flautist & Firkin Mile End 588 Mile End Road, E3
    Flicker & Firkin Richmond Dukes Yard, 1 Duke Street, TW9
    Flintlock & Firkin Fitzrovia 108a Tottenham Court Road, W1
    Flock & Firkin Dalston 512 Kingsland Road, E8 C.
    Flounder & Firkin Holloway 54 Holloway Road, N7
    Flourmill & Firkin Brixton 442-444 Brixton Road, SW9
    Flower & Firkin Kew Kew Gardens Station, Station Approach, TW9
    Flyman & Firkin Covent Garden 166-170 Shaftesbury Avenue, WC2
    Foote & Firkin Wandsworth 111-113 Wandsworth High Street, SW18
    Footman & Firkin Hendon 56 The Burroughs, NW4
    Ford & Firkin Romford 15 High Street, RM1
    Fornax & Firkin South Harrow xx Northolt Road, HA2
    Forster & Firkin Blackfriars 2-3 New Bridge Street, EC4
    Fox & Firkin Lewisham 316 Lewisham High Street, SE13
    Freedom & Firkin Tooting 196 Tooting High Street, SW17
    Friar & Firkin Euston 120 Euston Road, NW1
    Friesian & Firkin Clapham 87 Rectory Grove, SW4
    Frigate & Firkin Olympia 24 Blythe Road, W14
    Fringe & Firkin Shepherds Bush 2 Goldhawk Road, W12
    Fringilla & Firkin North Finchley 762-764 High Road, N12
    Frog & Firkin Notting Hill 96 Ladbroke Grove, W11
    Frog & Firkin Westbourne Park 41 Tavistock Crescent, W11
    Frothfinders & Firkin Pinner xx Marsh Road, HA5
    Fulmar & Firkin Holborn 51 Parker Street, WC2
    Funnel & Firkin Greenwich 174 Greenwich High Road, SE10
    Furze & Firkin Streatham 103-105 Streatham High Road, SW16
    Fusilier & Firkin Camden Town 7-8 Chalk Farm Road, NW1
    Goose & Firkin Southwark 47-48 Borough Road, SE1
    Phantom & Firkin Plaistow 140 Balaam Street, E13 CN
    Pharoah & Firkin Fulham 90-90a Fulham High Street, SW6
    Pheasant & Firkin Clerkenwell 166 Goswell Road, EC1
    Philatelist & Firkin Bromley 27-29 East Street, BR1
    Philomath & Firkin Harrow 9 Gayton Road, HA1
    Phoenix & Firkin Camberwell Denmark Hill Station SE5
    Photographer & Firkin Ealing 23-25 Ealing High Street, W5

  35. Arthur Black says:

    When I was a student in London in the mid eighties, we spent many a Friday night in the Goose and Furkin. Loved the whole pub joining in a sing song and the piano player announcing “Welcome to another night of drunkenness and debauchery at the Goose and Furkin!!” . A few years later in the early nineties when working in London, used to go to the Fox and Furkin in Lewisham on Friday nights where they used to hand out song sheets and everyone sang along to the piano playing. Such amazing times. Drank plenty of Dogbolter beer! I still have an audio recording of one friday night in the Fox. Great memories. Thank you to the Furkin pubs for happy times in my youth!

  36. I am an American, and studied in London for my junior year of college. I pulled pints at the Ferret for a couple of months, then started playing percussion for guitarist Chris Boardman and Jamie the piano player at Firkin pubs all over London. The staff at the Ferret were a joyous bunch, and the music was always spectacular. A great time.

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